'Mom Shirl' brings hope to Australia's aborigines

When an Australian aborigine appears in the local courthouse in the Sydney district of Redfern, it's quite common for the magistrate to hear testimony from an eloquent 60-year-old woman who, despite an inability to read or write, displays an extensive knowledge of the law.

When Mrs. Shirley Smith speaks, magistrates - and police - listen.

Lawyers who haven't previously seen her in action often watch in stunned silence. Her voice is deep, resonant, and confident. Mrs. Smith frequently stubs a large finger heavenward for emphasis. She doesn't mince words.

In court, she is usually there to help some confused youth explain why he did - or didn't do - what he is accused of. If he's found guilty, she will often reveal family circumstances and make a plea for clemency.

Magistrates have heard her hundreds of times. They know that the tough but compassionate woman, resembling a cartoonist's caricature of a stern and domineering mother-in-law, is no bleeding heart. If there's no cause for clemency, she acknowledges it.

She's seldom called Mrs. Smith, or even Shirley.

To Australia's blacks, ''Mom Shirl'' is a folk hero. She is compared to India's Mother Teresa. And when the Nobel Peace Prize-winner visited Australia last year, she went to see Mom Shirl.

Redfern is the closest thing Sydney has to a slum. It's a peeling, battered inner city that is expected to be redeveloped within the next decade, as other such areas already have been. Compared with many overseas cities, Redfern doesn't quite make it as a slum. But it comes close.

Crime is plentiful, say the locals, but much of it is petty. The citizens of Redfern don't feel unsafe on the streets.

Though most of Redfern's population is non-aboriginal Australian (including a Lebanese community), the suburb is home to many of Sydney's urban aborigines.

Of Australia's 14.6 million people, an estimated 300,000 are aborigines. Most are rural, and when aborigines are featured in the news media, often with regard to disputes over land rights or because of accusations of state government neglect, it's usually the rural communities that are under discussion. Some of Redfern's aborigines don't disguise their annoyance over this, believing city aborigines are too often forgotten.

Aboriginal organizations say the federal government should do more for them in such areas as health care and education to make up for years of neglect. They also feel domestic policies should be brought into line with the positive attitude of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's government toward third-world peoples, such as those in Namibia, seeking independence.

In New South Wales, there are an estimated 40,000 aborigines. About one-third live in the Sydney area (some spend part of their time with rural familes), with most of Sydney's aborigines living in Redfern or in neighboring suburbs.

In arguing for more government help, aborigines point to a life expectancy of about 50 years, compared with over 70 years for whites, higher infant mortality rates, and a higher incidence of disease.

Alcoholism is a major problem for aborigines in remote communities and is even a greater one in the cities. People such as Mom Shirl argue that it's an inevitable response to neglect - people with poor prospects will use alcohol to find an escape. They say the young see too few aborigines reaching positions of success in government or private enterprise.

In Redfern, when aboriginal - and some white - families have a problem, the word goes out: ''Go fetch Mom Shirl!''

As a breathless child explains about a father who didn't come home, a brother's altercation with police, or some other crisis, Mom Shirl clucks in exasperation as she grabs her coat and follows the messenger into the night.

Twice she abandoned interviews for this article. Once, a woman had taken suddenly ill and wouldn't see a doctor until she had talked with Mom Shirl.

On the other occasion a group of weeping women complained that the husband of one of them had not come home. He could even be in jail for brawling or some other minor crime.

''Well, I won't get any peace until I flush him out,'' Mom Shirl sighed as she pushed aside the vegetables she was peeling and headed for the door.

She lives in a small state government-owned house in Newtown, near Redfern. The house was provided recently after she took in four small aboriginal children whose parents were unable to care for them. ''The kids would have gone to an institution, so I had to do it,'' she explained. ''And I needed a house for them - I couldn't keep them where I was.''

She was referring to her former home of many years, some rooms behind St. Vincent's Roman Catholic Church in Redfern, which she shared with about 60 homeless alcoholics. Mom Shirl lived in one room -- a bed, a closet for her print dresses, and a battered desk were its only furniture -- and the alcoholics bunked down each night in various other rooms.

Mom Shirl regularly spends several evenings a week fishing drunks out of the local pubs and taking them back to the church. ''Alcoholism is terrible here,'' she says. ''But it won't get any better until the people have hope.''

She intercedes with police, visits aborigines in the state's jails, and arranges funerals. She's always in debt for other people's burials, believing that the first task is to get the person's funeral over with. But since the families that appeal for help often have no money, Mom Shirl gets stuck with the bill. She lives on donations and a pension.

She ''drifted in'' to community work as a young woman. Her biography is blurred deliberately, one suspects. Her husband is no longer mentioned. She makes no distinction between the children she gave birth to and many others who are informally adopted. A Catholic, she goes to mass several times each week. According to a close friend, ''she has no interest in personal details and likes to focus attention on anything but her work.''

Some of her activities have overtaken her. She was the inspiration for several voluntary agencies in the Redfern area. Two of the agencies, the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Aboriginal Medical Service, provide help to the local community.

''It's the young people that need the most help,'' Mom Shirl said. She believes young aborigines need more aid to succeed in modern society, but she also favors more teaching of aboriginal history and culture to develop greater pride.

Among the projects she has encouraged is the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theater, founded in 1975 and federally funded. Its 30 students receive government grants for the three-year course. Two graduates are now furthering their studies in the United States. Another is doing the same in Europe.

Carole Johnson, the theater's artistic director, is a Philadelphian who worked with black dance groups in New York. The theater is housed in a former church school and teaches aboriginal and modern dance as well as various general high school subjects. Although the students are supposed to be high school graduates, the requirement is waived because of the poor formal education levels of its most promising dancers.

''It's marvelous how Mom Shirl encourages these kids,'' Miss Johnson said. ''She's immensely respected by my black students.''

Mom Shirl gets along equally well with moderates and militants. Along Redfern Street, the sergeant from the local police station calls out '' 'day'' as readily as do the angry young men who affect the dress and Afros once popular with blacks in the United States.

There is an oft-told story (which she confirms) about her and singer Neil Diamond.

Diamond was impressed by Mom Shirl's work, so he had her flown to Las Vegas, Nev. There, she was put up in a luxury hotel suite with a giant bed, lights that dimmed, and other gadgets that seemed worlds away from the lumpy mattress and bare light bulbs of Redfern.

Mom Shirl had expected that the trip was to discuss help for the aboriginal community. Instead she found she was expected to relax in luxury. She lost no time in telling her host the money could have been better spent helping the poor.

In Redfern, where overseas travel is mostly a dream, they still laugh about that: the plain woman in the print dress giving the pop idol a piece of her mind.

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